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Three Design Team Leaders on the State of UX

by Wayne Neale
10 min read
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In interviews, the experience design leaders at Groupon, eBay, and Lumension share their views of UX and agree it still has some growing to do.

In May I wrote an article for UX Magazine called, “Why You Should Hire a VP of User Experience Design.”

For this follow-up article, I’ve interviewed three UX team leaders to better understand who they are, how their organizations address UX design, how they lead, and what user experience means to them.

UX has come a long way, but as you’ll read, there’s still considerable room for opportunity.

Peter Merholz, VP of Global Design at Groupon

Peter Merholz is responsible for anything that gets designed at Groupon, a daily deal site with a global reach and brand. Merholz is based out of Palo Alto and became Groupon’s design chief in October, 2012. His career spans 20 years and he was the co-founder of Adaptive Path, helping it grow into one of the world’s premiere user experience consultancies.

How do you view UX?

UX is a mindset.

Who has your favorite user experience?

Right now, I’d probably say Netflix. But it changes.

What’s the role of a VP of UX like at Groupon?

I lead all design for Groupon, both marketing and product. We don’t call it “UX”—it’s design. We recognize that “UX” is everyone’s responsibility, not just designers’.

Describe the role that UX plays.

On the product side, we’re partners with product management and engineering in defining and executing on our products and services. On the marketing side, we’re key stewards of Groupon’s brand and personality.

How do you define user experience?

I leave it up to Jesse [James Garrett]: “Experience design is the design of anything, independent of medium or across media, with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal.”

How is your UX team structured: centralized, decentralized, hybrid?

Centralized. On the product side, team members are dedicated to specific aspects of the product, but reporting is all centralized.

What are the structure’s strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: helps ensure quality, coherence, and consistency of the design; keeps designers feeling like they’re part of a community.

Weaknesses: At our size, I don’t think there are many weaknesses. The only organizational weakness we have is not enough designers!

Does anyone have responsibility over the end-to-end customer experience?

In theory, yes: that’s how I’ve set up our design teams. In practicality, there are touchpoints we haven’t gotten to.

What core process does your team use: UCD, design thinking, lean UX, etc.?

None. I’ve developed a quasi-UCD process of my own that I’m trying to bake in, but, really, people just get to work.

What metrics do you use to measure the value of UX?

We use engagement, performance, and conversion.

Do you feel that UX has finally achieved its proper place in the world or is there still more work to be done?

There’s more work to be done. UX/design still isn’t seen as the ultimate strategic partner it should be. Folks still focus too much simply on execution.


Daniela Jorge, Senior Design Director at eBay

Everyone knows eBay as the mega e-commerce site that has over 130 million active users every month and a $67 billion market cap. Daniela Jorge has lead design efforts at companies like Intuit, Yahoo!, Kaiser, and Kodak going back to the early ’90s. At eBay, she leads the design organization responsible for the experience of buyers and sellers on ebay.com and the tablet-specific web experience. Her team is responsible for user research across web, mobile, and ebay local for eBay Marketplaces (communities of buyers, sellers, and small businesses). As a design leader, she helps define the overall design direction for the site and ensures the team is delivering high quality experiences for their users. Jorge is also involved in helping to define the future vision for connected commerce.

Who has your favorite user experience?

Not necessarily personal favorites, but I have been looking at dating sites/apps in that they’re not very dissimilar to what we do at eBay—[both are] marketplaces of sorts. It’s impressive to see how they have leveraged concepts such as gaming to make their experiences incredibly engaging and addictive.

Describe the role that UX plays at eBay.

We not only partner closely with the business and PM/PD organizations to deliver against current priorities but also to help envision the future. We’ll often run workshops to explore a broad set of solutions against a business opportunity. Additionally, we leverage our visual storytelling skills to help bring the business strategy to life.

How do you define user experience?

As I learned in my very first job at Kodak, I believe UX encompasses a user’s experience with a company at every touchpoint, both online and offline. For instance, now that eBay has introduced a local delivery service called eBay Now, we need to take into account the experience a buyer has when interacting with the couriers.

How is your UX team structured: centralized, decentralized, hybrid?

In Marketplaces, there are two primary design teams: I run the web and tablet web teams and my former manager and VP of Design, Marie Tahir, runs the Mobile and Local team. With both our teams, we are somewhat centralized in that we support several product teams—some of which are not in our own management chain. In addition, we have a design discipline council to ensure that we’re providing designers, user experience researchers, and prototypers with career development, sharing best practices, and growing the discipline as a whole.

What are the structure’s strengths and weaknesses?

The primary challenge for design … is that we support teams outside of my direct management chain. This can, at times, create the perception that domains within the reporting structure are “valued” more than those outside. In addition, having Mobile as a separate organization makes it harder for us to design experiences seamlessly across devices.

On the positive side, this was done to keep design centralized as a discipline (for the team that works on ebay.com). In addition to helping grow and retain talent, this was also done so that we can be looking at the experience end-to-end and holding our partners accountable for thinking holistically.

What metrics do you use to measure the value of UX?

We’re extremely metric driven at eBay, so we use those metrics to decide whether or not to launch a redesign, for instance. In the past, the focus was mostly on revenue but we’ve recently added engagement to the mix.

I think in the end [the value provided] comes down to the specific experiences that teams and stakeholders have with designers. When a PM works with a great designer, they immediately see the value. It boils down to demonstrating how we add value more so than speaking about it or measuring it.

Do you feel that UX has finally achieved its proper place in the world or is there still more work to be done?

I think we have come a very long way; I’m always amazed at the demand for UX professionals now compared to 10 years ago. And I’m seeing non-traditional industries recognizing the value of design thinking and UX professionals and how they can help with the overall business strategy and customer experience. But we still have a long way to go.

Tony Quiroz, Vice President of User Experience at Lumension

Tony Quiroz has been in this UX leadership role for over six years and worked as a UX professional for over 15 years, designing industry-leading web, software, and mobile solutions for clients in e-commerce, CRM, sales, education, sports, healthcare, and IT security.

Favorite UX quote or principle?

“Don’t make me think,” the title of the book by Steven Krug. There are times when you actually do want to make the user think, but as a guiding principle this statement is right on the money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that quote in design reviews. And the designer always gets the point right away.

The same thing can be said about UX that is said about quality: you can’t just add it in at the end.

Favorite user experience?

Amazon.com. It’s not sleek and simple, like Apple—it’s actually a bit cluttered and clunky and text-heavy. But Amazon has done an amazing thing: They’ve extracted some of the best parts of the old bricks-and-mortar shopping experiences—like getting a staff recommendations at a book store or having another customer see the CD in your hand and tell you about some other band you may really like—and they’ve reproduced this online.

They’ve also done a lot to anticipate the shopper’s habits, allowing you to leave the site and pick back up where you left off. But the most impressive thing of all is that they’ve taken this impossibly gigantic inventory and made it easy to browse or search to find what you’re looking for.

What’s the role of a VP of UX like at your company?

At Lumension, the UX department is at a peer-level with product management and engineering. Together, we own the challenge of designing and delivering best-of-breed IT security and operations solutions. For me, personally, this translates into leading the UX department, which is comprised of UX design analysts, scrum product owners, and, as of just recently, a senior UI developer.

In addition to managing the UX team, I serve as a stakeholder on our release projects, providing input on sprint team deliverables. I also contribute as a stakeholder in our engineering development process, working with my counterparts to help the engineering division transition to agile development practices.

What is the scope of your responsibilities?

The major focus is on product design and development. The company has grown a lot through acquisitions and partnerships, so there’s been a steady cycle of integration work to do. It’s my job, and the UX team’s job, to make sure the new technology fits seamlessly within the existing design of our product and works intuitively for our end users.

I’m also responsible for creating and maintaining the product design standards. UX owns a number of key references like the Web Application Style Guide, the Module Integration Guide, Internationalization & Accessibility Standards, and Branding Guides. These require a lot of attention to enforce and maintain.

Then there are the release-level activities: working with product management and engineering management to organize projects, coordinating resource assignments across teams, contributing to off-shore engagements, and developing light-weight customer and competitor research plans to help inform our design decisions.

How do you define user experience?

For us, the user experience is the complete end-to-end job of installing and configuring our products and then working with them on a day-to-day basis to effectively achieve IT security and operational tasks. This includes the overall navigation and use of the product features, effectively troubleshooting and overcoming issues, leveraging the data for reporting and compliance needs, upgrading the server and endpoints to the latest versions, and expanding the functionality of the suite by adding new modules over time.

How is your UX team structured: centralized, decentralized, hybrid?

We started out centralized, but now the analysts and POs are decentralized and work as members of their sprint teams on a day-to-day basis. They sit alongside the developers, QA, DB, pubs, and other resources in a “team room” as opposed to sitting together in a UX department workspace. But all UX team members are also part of a centralized “Community of Practice” (CoP), where they share best practices and ask/answer questions. They sometimes work on CoP initiatives to advance our knowledge and tools.

What are the structure’s strengths and weaknesses?

We’re on-site in all of our development offices worldwide, so we have a good presence throughout the organization. However, we aren’t staffed 1:1 with the teams, so we have some UX members who stretch to cover multiple roles. It’s not uncommon for someone to be both a Product Owner and UX Analyst on a team. We also have team members who handle design and other UCD tasks across two or more teams in two or more office locations. Both situations take away from the ability to fully cover all the UX tasks we’d like to get done and can make it a challenge to properly influence the work that’s going on.

Do you feel that UX has finally achieved its proper place in the world or is there still more work to be done?

Probably the biggest thing that has happened in our favor is that customers themselves now make UX a part of their buying criteria. That’s something that registers with everyone throughout the business. Usability does matter. And I think technology companies get this by-and-large. A good design gets your foot in the door with new prospects and makes you sticky to existing customers. At a higher level, good design solves problems and creates business opportunities.

To this day I still encounter the mindset that “UX=UI.” It’s still a challenge to get UX involved at the right phases of a project or opportunity to really maximize our contributions. Everyone thinks of us when it comes to designing the interface, but they don’t necessarily reach out in the early research or planning phases. The same thing can be said about UX that is said about quality: you can’t just add it in at the end. You need to invest in it up front from the earliest stages of a project. And that’s where the work still has to be done by people in my role. It’s about evangelizing the work that we do and showing the value so that the UX team gets the opportunity to be involved.


Image of macro water droplets courtesy Shutterstock

post authorWayne Neale

Wayne Neale, Wayne Neale is Founder and President of Kydak, a customer research and experience design company. Kydak uses user research, design, and integrative evaluation methods to solve complex problems and create innovative experiences for digital software products—connecting business objectives with customers needs and desires to deliver an end-to-end product or service experience.


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